The very first Local Government Elections in Bhutan was held in June 2011, the results of which were most imbalanced from a gender perspective. Only one out of the 205 Chairpersons of 205 Local Governments was a woman and overall in a pool of some 1454 elected representatives, only 98 were female, keeping female representation at 6.9 pecenttage. This, in the land of Gross National Happiness, GNH where women inherit property and face least of gender discriminations compared to its neighbouring countries, seems illogical but true. Currently, among the 8 SAARC nations (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), Bhutan is faring as one the worst in terms of women’s political participation.
Hence, the upcoming 2nd Local Government Elections slated for 27 September 2016 are being awaited with much enthusiasm and excitement generated by the Bhutan Network for Empowering Women, BNEW, which has been actively raising awareness and mobilizing women to motivate and prepare over 3000 women all over the country to partake towards achieving a target of 20 percentages representation by women this time round.
Given that BNEW did not exist during the run unto the 1st Local Government Elections of 2011, nor was there any other non-government actor to facilitate the process of enhancing women’s participation, the upcoming 2nd Local Government Elections in 2016 is both exciting and historic for women of Bhutan especially at grassroots level. Why so? because the awareness, interest and commitment among women about the need to participate in order to strengthen visibility & voice of women, to create role models for future generations of girls/women – and make a difference in society, has grown enormously as a result of the work of BNEW all over the country. Women are much more ‘awake’ now – some have said in interviews to media that they had been ‘sleeping’ and did not ever consider, that it was equally their responsibility to step in and participate for a more gender equal society.
Since the Election Commission of Bhutan, ECB announced the Election Notification almost a fortnight ago, the excitement and nervousness are further building up among women, with the start of the nomination process beginning with the first step i.e. Chiwog Zomdus (village meetings conducted by the ECB). The BNEW team and its membership of hundreds of women all over the 20 Dzongkhags cling to their mobile phones even while asleep ….to stay connected, clarify doubts, share concerns, motivate and encourage each other, coach each other, update info and results of nomination meetings right after results are declared, congratulate and console etc. This goes on…..through the day and the night!
Functional Literacy Test
In Bhutan, to be eligible to stand for local elections, candidates should have passed a Functional Literacy Test (FLT) conducted by the Election Commission of Bhutan, ECB ahead of the elections. At the end of April 2016, the Election Commission of Bhutan held a nation-wide Functional Literacy Test and in a pool of some 3500 passed participants, 1024 were women (30 percentage), which in itself is a vast improvement over the first FLT results of 2010-2011, when only 11 percentage were women. If the final election results show comparable results to that of the FLT 2016, BNEW can wait optimistically! Such a drastic increase of representation of women – almost three fold – compared to the result of 2010 – is in itself the immediate outcome of the work of BNEW, tirelessly travelling to prepare our women to participate fearlessly in the 2nd Local Government Elections.
In its efforts since conceptualization and launch of the network, BNEW has conducted series of activities around the country, travelling several times to every nook and corner to mobilize women and make them understand the importance of equal gender, representation, women’s participation and leadership, as well as preparing them for the FLT, campaigns etc. To date some 3200 women have participated in these. This year’s Annual General Meetings saw participation by over 300 women from all 20 districts/Dzongkhags of Bhutan. The primary objective of all these activities by BNEW was to raise awareness, motivate, mobilize and create a significant pool of confident and potential candidates to contest in the 2nd Local Government Elections of 2016.
In the beginning of this year with 2nd Local Government Elections just a few months away, BNEW conducted a final round of Potential Leaders Workshops nation-wide and Regional media preparedness workshops in order for the women to remind, refresh and remain committed to participate. The Regional Media Preparedness and Awareness Workshop, were conducted to prepare potential candidates with public speaking skills, debating skills and also on interacting with the media when newsmakers run after them for interviews ahead of or/post elections.
Initially nervous, Namgay Pelden went on to win the 2011 elections. But self-doubt remained on whether she would be able to shoulder the responsibilities of a Gup (Chair of Local Government), while at the same time also take care of her family. Having successfully completed the five-year tenure and having gained enough experience and confidence, the lone woman “Gup” from 1st Local Government Elections is all set to recontest in the upcoming 2nd Local elections from Tashiding gewog in Dagana. Her Chiwog Nomination Meeting was one of the first to happen this month and she won a landslide victory against her male opponent winning 247 votes out of the 295. “Based on my experience so far, I feel that for women, serving as a Gup is easier than any other job,” she said, adding that she managed to effectively carryout her duties even during the most challenging days, when she gave birth to her first child just a year after being elected.
In 2012, when she was pregnant with the second child she got worried. But, as she lived near the gewog centre and had her mother as a full-time baby sitter, she was able to work from home without absence even during the two weeks of maternity leave. She opted to join office 15 days after giving birth. “These are areas of disadvantage for women local leaders but definitely not a discouragement,” she said. “However, I managed to raise my baby as well as perform my duties without fail.” Today, besides fulfilling her regular tasks as gup, she has also been actively involved in meeting other women aspiring to contest in the upcoming Local Government elections.
Thanks to the efforts and advocacy work of BNEW, Namgay says, “more women are showing interest to contest compared to the 1st LG elections of 2011”, when only a handful of women took part. “I expect that all those interested women will at least try,” she said. The 32-year-old mother of two also said “that people have appreciated the work she put in as gup and with encouragement from the public”; she will be contesting for a second term. “I’m confident that I can do better this time to serve the people,” she affirmed.
In certain pockets of Bhutan, the act of choosing a leader is strongly influenced by one’s gender, gender stereotypes, age, the old traditions and belief system. Punakha Dzongkha and one of the gewogs of Thimphu i.e. Mewang Gewog are such places where these sentiments continue to thrive in spite of being closest to the capital city. Just because of one day out of 365 days, when the local leaders must perform a certain religious ritual during the annual festival of Punakha, the community strongly opposes women’s candidature and male opponents take advantage of this aspect to negatively campaign against women.
A quick news coverage and panel discussion on the national Television on the eve of the local elections, Choki and Karma Zangmo two female Gup aspirants narrowly managed to be nominated in their respective Chiwog Zomdus. While Choki secured 204 votes of the 336 votes in her constituency against a strong male opponent, Karma too secured 140 out of 246.
With Chiwog nomination Zomdus the first step in local elections going on currently across the country, our women share with excitements some messages in the “we-chat groups”…Leena Maya Thapa, who has come out successful as a Gup candidate expressed her gratitude saying “I really wanna give my heartfelt thanks to BNEW for inspiring women in the country! Had it not existed, thousands of women would not have been risen to show their talents. I am extremely overwhelmed to see women’s participation in Local Government elections this year and I just wish to keep the same spirit in future too…… Let’s make every man and the mother of his daughters glad to have women in the country”.
As of 26 August, 2016 from the scant data that we have managed to gather on the nominations to the 2 highest posts i.e. Gup and Mangmi (Chair and Deputy Chair of each Local Government) of some 70 women who stood for nominations in their respective local constituencies (Chiwogs/villages), 56 have won and 14 lost out. Success rate of women continues to remain above 80 percentage. Some of them won against incumbent males and as many as 2-3 male opponents. Seeing this trend is encouraging for BNEW and the team remains optimistically anxious till poll day September 27 2016. Hoping to see the number of women elected double or triple compared to the 1st Local Government Elections of 2011.
Women sharing their views on the value of the workshop:
“…Drilling session it was”, uttered with sigh, Karma Choden from Nahi gewog in Wangdiphodrang, who has decided to stand as a Mangmi (deputy Chair) candidate from her Geog. She said, “Elevating my confidence level was most important thing for me and now I am confident about my confidence to speak with the crowd”
Excited, Karma also added “Until this workshop my stand for Local Government election wasn’t confirmed and with lots of encouragement and energy I gained here -I have now fully decided my stand”.
Phub Dem, a participant from Phangyul Geog in Wangdiphodrang Dzongkhag shared, that she is extremely happy and thankful that she could figure out her own capabilities through such an eye opening training.
“The workshop helped “open up my world” outside the village” and she was someone who had never stepped out of her house before BNEW called her to participate. Without any sign of hesitation she also confirmed her stand in the upcoming Local Government elections.
“Camera phobic I was, at the beginning of this workshop and now speaking in front of the camera will no more be a monstrous moment for me”, shared Sonam Lhaden from Monggar, who has decided to stand as Mangmi candidate from Nertse Chiwog.
“Usually when Bhutan Broadcasting Service and other media people come with the camera for the interview, we just don’t know what to say and we just shy away”, she added, but now “I am ready to talk to anyone!”
A participant from Tashicholing under Samtse dzongkhag, Dawa Zangmo, shared that Bhutanese women face lots of obstacles on their path to politics and the BNEW workshops have helped to educate and overcome the barriers and participate in politics for the benefit of the society. “I am motivated to contest in the upcoming Local Government Elections.”
Dendup Dema from Shongphu said that “such programmes conducted by BNEW are timely and has helped women to build their capacities and offer voter sensitization on gender equality.” She further added, that ”it has encouraged and educated women to value civic engagement and help them to see themselves as empowered leaders in politics and public policy” – in accordance with the objectives of BNEW.
Dhendup has just come out victorious in her local nomination meeting gaining 283 ‘Yes’ votes and only 32 “no” votes. She goes forward to contest at next level to stand for the post of Mangmi on Poll day 27 September 2016.
Sonam Dema from Samar Gewog under Haa emphasised, that it is very important for the women candidates to receive voter’s support and confidence in women’s experience to bring about wider social change. “Through such workshops I myself have also learnt to trust other women and support them, and hope others too will trust and support me more from now on” she said. In the nomination meeting held in her village this week, Sonam won against two male opponents with 57 of the 95 votes.
Sonam Choden the only female Mangmi from Zobel gewog, Pemagatshel has decided to re-contest. She admitted, “had it not been for BNEW’s repeated requests, I was on the verge of quitting, not to re contest because of my age”. Sonam is not old, but she is very religious and spiritually oriented and wants to spend time to pray and sit quietly at home. However having received lots of encouragement from BNEW’s training, she changed her mind to participate and set an example in her district. “I’m taking part again also because of my family and husband who has been always supportive. In fact it was him who did all the documentation without my knowledge in the first election and today I am here because of him.” Sonam has been nominated by her constituency and will contest for post of ‘Gup’ on poll day.
It is the same story for 32-year old Mangmi Tashi Zangmo from Pemathang gewog in Samdrupjongkhar. She is also the lone female Mangmi in the Dzongkhag. Tashi Zangmo, a class X dropout and divorcee, said she has gained substantial experience serving as a Mangmi (deputy chair) for last 5 years and is confident that she can continue to do well. Based on personal assessment and feedback she decided to re-contest for same post instead of as Gup. “There are people who encourage me to contest for Gup but I’ve to also study the environment in the gewog and for now, I know Mangmi is the best option I should try for,” she said. “Over the past five years I have really enhanced my confidence – to come in front of people and interacting with people has become my favourite part and I love the job.” “I want to give other women an impression that we can also become what we want,” she added. “As for now, I won’t change my mind and let’s see what happens on poll day,” she said. At this week’s nomination meeting in her constituency Tashi was her peoples’ choice with 120 of the 165 votes against one man.
Tashiding’s former Gup, chair – Namgay Pelden says that “the apparently difficult task of serving in the post of a “Gup” turned out to be easier than anticipated”. She points out that, “Serving as Gup is even easier than farming and doing other household chores.
-While there are challenges – Women can overcome them!”
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